The military has taken control of the national broadcaster, troops are in the streets and the president is being held in a secure environment. All military leave is cancelled and a senior general has addressed the nation. Yet the Zimbabwean military continues with the pretence that this is not a coup d’etat.
The obvious response to this is: if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck then the chances are it’s a duck. And the sole reason the Zimbabwean military is not acknowledging this as a coup d’etat is to avoid triggering the country’s automatic suspension from the African Union and the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Both bodies frown on coups.
A perfect storm formed ahead of these events and made military action predictable. The country had once again entered a steep economic decline (not that its “recovery” had been anything of note). A clear and reckless bid for power was being made by the so-called Generation 40 (G40) faction around Grace Mugabe in direct opposition to the Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, the standard bearer for the so-called Lacoste faction.
This culminated in Mnangagwa’s dismissal by President Mugabe: a clear indication that Grace Mugabe was now calling the shots. It also served as a follow up to the 2015 Grace-engineered dismissal of another Vice President and rival, Joice Mujuru.
The coup means that Mugabe’s long and disastrous presidency is finally over. The only questions that remain are the precise details and mechanics of the deal which secures his departure.
Why the coup
Mnangagwa is a long time Zanu-PF stalwart and is clearly closely integrated with the military high command and the intelligence services. Both institutions are concerned that the succession is being arranged for a faction led by people with no liberation credentials but who have been skilled in manipulating Mugabe himself and in making him do their bidding. The G40 now appear to have overreached, perhaps believing that their proximity to the “old man” made them invincible.
This coup’s explicit purpose is twofold. First, it’s trying to definitively kill off Grace Mugabe’s ambitions to become president and to set in place a ruling dynasty akin to the Kims in North Korea. Second, it’s a bid to clear Mnangagwa’s path to power, first in Zanu-PF and then within the state itself (over the last three decades these have been virtually one and the same thing).
What we do not yet know is what counter force, if any, the G40 can bring to bear against the military. The calculation of the military hierarchy appears to be that Grace and company are paper tigers who will have few cards to play against such force majeure and who lack the popular appeal to bring angry and disillusioned masses out onto the streets.
The coup has formally stripped away the façade that Zimbabwe is a constitutional state. This is clearly a militarised party-state where the military is a pivotal actor in the ruling party’s internal politics. It is not simply a neutral state agency subordinate to the civilian leadership. And the idea that this military intervention is an aberration – a departure from the constitutional norm – is misplaced.
Zimbabwe is a de facto military dictatorship. It serves as a guarantor of ZANU-PF rule rather than as a custodian of the constitution. It has helped Zanu-PF rig elections. And it was central to the state terror which was unleashed against the population to reverse Mugabe and Zanu-PF’s electoral defeat in 2008. The military has always been a key political actor. The only difference this time is that its intervention is designed to control events within Zanu-PF rather than to crush opposition to it.
But, a highly politicised military is a major impediment to the re-establishment of a democratic order in Zimbabwe. It has nothing to gain, politically or financially, from democratic rule given the lucrative networks of embezzlement and plunder it’s put in place over decades. Most recently it seized and siphoned off of the country’s diamond wealth for military officers and the party hierarchy.
This intervention is designed to secure the presidency for Mnangagwa. So it is hard to avert our eyes from the elephant –- or in this case the Crocodile –- in the room. Mnangagwa is the Mugabe henchman who helped enable the misrule and tyranny of the last 37 years. He was one of the principal architects of the Gukurahundi -– the genocidal attack on the Ndebele – in the early to mid-1980s which left at least 20 000 people dead.
He has also been instrumental in rigging elections and crushing all opposition to Zanu-PF rule, including the atrocities of 2008.
Expecting such a person to now make a deathbed conversion to the democracy, constitutional government and good governance he has spent an entire career liquidating is dangerous nonsense.
Dilemmas to come
Mnangagwa will soon have to confront a series of dilemmas. How can he put in place an administration which has the appearance of a national unity government, can secure international approval and the financial assistance required to help rebuild a shattered economy – but avoid ceding any meaningful power or control? Can this circle be squared?
The best hope for Zimbabweans is that the international community uses its leverage wisely and sets stringent conditions for such assistance: free elections closely monitored by an array of international organisations, the establishment of a new electoral commission, free access to the state media and the right of parties to campaign freely.
There should also be a role here for South Africa to restore its badly tarnished image as a champion of democracy in Africa. It has followed a malign path over the last two decades, facilitating Zanu-PF authoritarianism in the name of a threadbare and increasingly degenerate “liberation solidarity”.
Such a combination of pressures will severely restrict Mnangagwa’s room for manoeuvre. Anything short of that will deliver an outcome which is essentially Mugabeism without Mugabe.
Then, late in the night of Nov. 14, the country’s security services detained and put Zimbabwe’s 93-year-old president under house arrest in what appeared to be a military coup. The whereabouts of his powerful wife, Grace, are unconfirmed.
But with each passing hour, it is increasingly evident that Zimbabwe – a country whose politics I spent uncountable hours grappling with as a State Department official – is poised to see its first real leadership transition since 1980.
Setting the stage for Zimbabwe’s coup
For decades, Mugabe’s grip on Zimbabwe was iron-clad. Even when challenged by an invigorated opposition in 2008, he kept the presidency by entering into a nominal power-sharing agreement. After a decisive electoral victory in 2013, though, he cast the coalition aside.
But as the elderly president grew increasingly frail this year, the power struggle to succeed him became frenzied. Two major camps were vying for power.
Vice President Emerson Mnangagwa, who as a soldier fighting for Zimbabwe’s liberation earned the nickname “the crocodile,” represented the old guard. The 75-year-old enjoyed strong military backing, particularly from the veterans’ association, a powerful coalition of former combatants from Zimbabwe’s independence struggle which began in 1964 and ended in 1979.
Last year, the group broke with Mugabe in a public letter, declaring that he had “presided over unbridled corruption and downright mismanagement of the economy, leading to national economic ruin.” Many believed that Vice President Mnangagwa orchestrated the group’s letter as a shot across the bow to warn would-be rivals.
The second camp jockeying to control Zimbabwe before the coup was led by Mugabe’s current wife, Grace Mugabe. At a relatively spry 53, she represented the younger generation, drawing significant support from the ruling party’s loyalist Youth League and from an informal grouping of emerging leaders known as “Generation 40.”
But Grace Mugabe was deeply unpopular among ordinary Zimbabweans, who called her “Gucci Grace” because of her extravagant spending. Plus, she had a reputation for cruelty. Earlier this year, the president’s wife faced accusations of beating a 20-year old South African model with an electric cable.
In September, after Vice President Mnangagwa was emergency airlifted to South Africa due to a strange illness, Grace Mugabe had to publicly deny, on state TV, that she had poisoned her rival.
As recently as early November, it appeared that Grace’s camp had prevailed. President Mugabe sacked Mnangagwa, who fled to South Africa. Mnangagwa, it seems, had a different plan. While in exile, he stayed in touch with his military allies.
On Nov. 14, Mnangagwa’s camp struck back. By the next morning, Mugabe was under house arrest, his wife had reportedly fled to Namibia seeking asylum and Mnangagwa’s cohort appeared to control the country.
Democracy or dictatorship?
At least, that’s the picture right now. Events have moved swiftly in the last 24 hours, and some big questions remain unanswered.
If Mnangagwa officially takes power, the first unknown is whether he will rule by fiat or cobble together a transitional government. It’s unclear whether Mnanangwa and his allies have any real interest in introducing democracy to Zimbabwe. To do so, they would need to hold an election within a reasonable period of time, say six months.
Military coups don’t have a promising track record of ushering in democracy. Recent scholarship finds that while “democratization coups” have become more frequent worldwide, their most common outcome is to replace an incumbent dictatorship with a “different group of autocrats.”
Signals in Zimbabwe are mixed so far. Experts generally describe the latest developments as “an internecine fight” among inner-circle elites and ask two key questions: Which side will prevail, and will violence break out?
In my assessment, the answers hinge on Mnangagwa, a hard-nosed realist and survivor who was critical in securing Mugabe’s four-decade rule. Mnangagwa has an appalling human rights record. Many consider him responsible for overseeing a series of massacres between 1982 and 1986 known as the “Gukurahundi,” in which an estimated 20,000 civilians from the Ndebele ethnic group perished.
More recently, in 2008, civil society groups accused Mnangagwa of orchestrating electoral violence against the political opposition and rigging polls in Mugabe’s favor.
It is also true that Mnangagwa is massively invested in ensuring his continued and unfettered access to power, which has proven highly lucrative for him. The vice president is “reputed” to be one of Zimbabwe’s richest people. All of this suggests he might become yet another dictator.
‘Unity’ for Zimbabwe?
Nonetheless, reports indicate that Mnangagwa is currently talking to several opposition parties about potentially forming a transitional government.
A key stakeholder in any such arrangement would be Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change, who served as prime minister to Mugabe as part of the 2009 power-sharing agreement.
That coalition achieved some success on economic matters, but Mugabe’s party never relinquished any real authority. Mnangagwa was among those who clung to power back then, but I believe he might play things differently now. Mnangagwa is no reformer, but he does need to find ways to bolster his legitimacy. Not to mention he will quickly need to confront Zimbabwe’s massive economic woes.
The choices that Zimbabwe’s political leadership makes in the coming weeks will have immense consequences for the future of a country whose development has stagnated under 40 years of authoritarian rule.
Real transitions in Zimbabwe are all too rare. Mugabe led the country to independence in March 1980, assumed the presidency and never left. His demise represents a chance for a political reset.
Nobody is safe from the rages of Zimbabwe’s First Lady, “Dr. Amai” Grace Mugabe. There was the young South African model Grace lashed with extension cords. 93-year-old President Robert Mugabe’s longtime and usually trusted ally Emmerson Mnangagwa, was next in the firing line: he was sacked because his supporters allegedly booed her at a rally.
The consequences of her vengeance may have led to a coup headed by Zimbabwe’s army chief General Constantino Chiwenga, who is commonly perceived to be Mnangagwa’s protégé. But ex-freedom fighter Mnangagwa has his own presidential aspirations.
Mnangagwa has been exiled from the party in which he has served since he was a teenager. But he is not just skulking in the political wilderness. On arrival in South Africa he issued a statement calling those who wanted him out “minnows”. He promised to control his party “very soon” and urged his supporters to register to vote in the national elections next July.
As if to back Mnangagwa, on November 13 General Chiwenga announced that he and his officers could not allow the “counter-revolutionary infiltrators”, implied to be behind Grace Mugabe, to continue their purges.
Factions and purges
Chiwenga declared that the armed forces must ensure all party members attend the extraordinary Zanu-PF congress next month with “equal opportunity to exercise their democratic rights”. He flashed back through Zanu-PF’s history of factionalism, reminding his listeners that although the military “will not hesitate to step in” it has never “usurped power”. Chiwenga promised to defuse all the differences “amicably and in the ruling party’s closet”.
Although this airbrushed more than it revealed about the party’s rough patches when leadership vacuums appeared, the statement appeared more as a cautionary note than a clarion call to arms. It’s not often a coup is announced before it starts; but once in motion direction – and history – can change. Grace Mugabe may have unleashed a perfect storm and her own undoing.
All the “shenanigans” that have inspired the generals to consider a coup have set the stage for an extraordinary Zanu-PF congress this December instead of in the expected 2019: that is, before rather than after the July 2018 national elections.
This suggests some people were in a hurry to settle the succession issues for the president, who is now showing every one of his 93 years. Maybe Robert Mugabe won’t rule until he is 100-years-old. If not, and members of his family or party wanted to keep their dynasties alive, they had to work quickly lest some similarly inclined contenders are in their way.
These contenders include Mnangagwa and a slew of his “Lacoste” faction consisting of war veterans and the odd financial liberal. The best-known of these is Patrick Chinamasa. This former finance minister tried to convince the world’s bankers he could pull Zimbabwe out of the fire. He was demoted to control cyberspace and then fired. Perhaps he may make a comeback in the wake of the semi-coup.
The pro-Grace faction includes the members of Generation 40, or “G-40”. Many are well over 40. But in Robert Mugabe’s shadow they appear young, as does the 52-year-old First Lady. Without a base in the liberation-war cohort, they resorted to working with the Mugabe couple: sometimes their ideology appears radical, espousing indigenous economics and more land to the tillers.
If the history of their best-known member – the current Minister of Higher Education Jonathan Moyo – is indicative, however, they are pragmatic; or less politely put, opportunist.
But with Grace Mugabe sans Robert, they would have to muster inordinate amounts of patience and manipulation to steer the sinking ship to the shores of stable statehood and incorporate yet younger generations who cut their political teeth as Robert Mugabe’s rule faltered.
Yet the possible plan for the upcoming congress – to create a third vice-president – appears not to move far beyond the cold hands of the old. Phelekezela Mphoko would be pushed to third vice-president status. Grace would be the second vice-president.
The current defence minister, Sydney Sekeramayi would be first vice-president and so, next in line for the presidential palace. He is a quiet but no less tarnished member of the Zanu-PF old guard; especially when one remembers the massacre of thousands of Ndebele people during the Gukurahundi.
When performing the calculus necessary to rectify Zimbabwe’s graceless imbalances, remember that Mnangagwa was perhaps the key architect of the nearly genocidal Gukurahundi, now chronicled in archival detail in historian Stuart Doran’s Kingdom, Power, Glory: Mugabe, Zanu, and the Quest for Supremacy. Among the scores implicated therein are the British, condemned by Hazel Cameron, another meticulous archivist, as exercising “wilful blindness” during what Robert Mugabe has dismissed as a “moment of madness”.
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that many are suspicious of Mnangagwa’s relationship with the UK. Many suspect he has been swimming with perfidious Albion for a very, very long time.
Those waters, in the shadow of Mugabe’s heritage, will take a few more generations of hard political work to clear. It hardly seems propitious that a coup, and the same generation that has ruled since 1980, starts it off.
Zimbabwe’s financial system increasingly resembles a house of cards. Were one card to give way – for instance, if South Africa’s power utility, Eskom, were to have the temerity to suggest that Zimbabwe actually pay for the electricity that it’s supplying the country – the entire edifice would collapse.
The rot goes back to the early 2000’s. ZANU-PF profligacy had been fuelled by acontinuous cycle of simply printing more money, and resultant runaway inflation. Mega-inflation meant that ordinary people lost their pensions and whatever savings they had, as the Zimbabwe dollar lost its value and people resorted to barter or the use of other currencies.
Ultimately, the government faced no choice but to accept reality. In 2008 it scrapped the Zimbabwe dollar in favour of a basket of other currencies, although within a short time, this meant in effect the reign of the US dollar.
“Dollarisation” allowed for the pursuit of more rational policies by the coalition Government of National Unity which followed the disputed 2008 election. However, its control of the electoral machinery ensured that ZANU-PF won a resounding victory in the 2013 election. Within a short space of time it returned to its familiar policy mix of profligacy, corruption and populist economics.
Yet ZANU-PF faced major problems. Above all, “dollarisation” meant that the cost of Zimbabwe’s exports on international markets was high. Worse, the dramatic collapse in agricultural production since the early 2000s (following the appropriation of white farms) alongside the decimation of the country’s manufacturing industries meant that there was relatively little to export anyway. Tobacco production has recovered a little, but the quality is less than it used to be, so returns are relatively less.
Meanwhile government insistence that mines should be 51% Zimbabwean owned has done nothing to entice inward investment or boost exports.
In short, the capacity of the economy to earn US dollars by selling goods externally has fallen dramatically, and the supply of money circulating within the country has dried up. Unemployment stands at around 90%.
President Robert Mugabe’s latest response has been to replace finance minister Patrick Chinamasa, who had been warning of the structure’s fragility in ever more urgent tones. The new finance minister is Ignatius Chombo, a party loyalist, who will brook no talk of any need for structural reform.
The bond notes
Faced by a looming crisis, the ZANU-PF government has resorted to three key strategies.
One has been the issue of “bond notes” (of different denominations) by the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe. Officially, they’re designed to swell the amount of money in circulation within the country. The problem is that apart from having no value outside the country, nobody trusts them as they have been issued by a ZANU-PF government, and it was this government that presided over the hyperinflation.
ZANU-PF’s announcement that it was issuing bond notes was met with a run on the banks as depositors sought to withdraw dollars as fast as they could. Their assumption was that this was a government ploy to reintroduce the Zimbabwean dollar. The Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe responded by limiting the amount of dollars individuals could withdraw.
People are reluctant to use the bond notes. But they’re still sometimes forced to accept them because of the sheer shortage of “real” money. As a result when they can, they rush off to the local bus station where they can sell them for dollars to currency traders – albeit illegally.
The second strategy has been the rapid expansion of country’s ability to manage electronic transactions. Its aim has been to expand the amount of money in circulation without using up “real” dollars.
Accordingly, government employees are now largely paid electronically Similarly, government employees (and everyone else) now pay nearly all their bills within the country electronically.
And Zimbabweans are rarely able to convert the notional sums of dollars they hold in the bank into real cash – unless they make use of the currency traders in illegal transactions.
Meanwhile, with the rate of inflation continuing to rise combined with the widespread lack of faith in the banks, many Zimbabweans spend their bank balances on consumer goods as quickly as possible rather than attempting to “save”. After all, if times get hard, you won’t be able to get rid of your bond notes, but you may be able to sell your fridge.
Fanciful financial system
But it’s the third strategy which the government has pursued which is really fuelling a fanciful financial system.
Since 2013, government expenditure has steadily increased year by year, despite the country earning very little internationally. The ZANU-PF government may have hoped to fund this by its old trick of literally printing money, that is, by expanding the supply of bond notes.
But such was the negative popular sentiment that the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe seems to have restricted their issue. Supposedly the issue of bond notes is backed by a USD$200 loan by the Afreximbank, but no-one really knows how many have been issued because the central bank provides no information.
What the government has done instead is to fund its rising costs by issuing treasury bills (whereby the government touts for loans on the capital market against promises of later redemption). No-one in their right mind would want to buy them, but Zimbabwe’s banks today have little option. As inward investment into the country has dried up to a trickle, there is little else for them to spend their money on, and the interest rates that the government promises to pay are, at face value, attractively high.
The coalition government of national unity recorded budget surpluses for three of the four full years in which the opposition controlled the Treasury. For its part, the ZANU-PF government recorded deficits of USD$186 million and USD$125 million in 2014 and 2015. Recently, the then finance minister Chinamasa projected a deficit of USD$1.41 billion for 2017. As of June 30, 2017, there were USD$2.5 billion worth of Treasury bills on issue.
In other words, the spending will continue. Zimbabwe’s financial system is living on borrowed time and borrowed money. It will again end in financial ruin, as it did in 2008. But all ZANU-PF cares about is ensuring that it wins the next election and allowing its political elite to “eat”.
Tensions at the Manus Island Regional Processing Centre remain high after the centre was officially closed on October 31 this year and handed back to the Papua New Guinea government.
Reports are that there are still around 420 people in the now-defunct regional processing centre who are refusing to move to recently built transit centres in Lorengau. However, these numbers shift on a daily basis as men move in and out of the centre.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recently said that:
The abrupt ending of services and the closure of the regional processing centre needs to involve the people who have been in this regional processing centre for years in a very vulnerable state… It is really high time to bring an end to this unconscionable human suffering.
How did we get here?
The offshore processing of asylum seekers who came to Australia by boat recommenced in 2012. At that time, single adult men were sent to Nauru and families with children and some adult men were sent to Manus Island in PNG.
However, since July 2013 only adult men were transferred to Manus and all the asylum seekers there today are male. (And families with children, single women, couples and some single men are on Nauru).
Since July 2013 a total of 1,523 people have been transferred to Manus from Australia.
When the Manus processing centre closed on October 31, there were 690 people in the facility.
The number of asylum seekers on Manus Island has slowly reduced over the years as people have either accepted packages to return to their country of origin, been deported from PNG, been resettled in the US or temporarily settled in PNG. Six others have died.
Why was the Manus Regional Processing Centre closed?
On April 27 last year, the PNG Supreme Court ruled that the detention of the asylum seekers on Manus Island was unconstitutional.
After the decision was made the PNG government said that those at the centre were free to come and go from the processing centre.
It was not until April 2017 that the Australian government and the PNG government announced publicly that the processing centre would close on October 31.
All of the service providers (including health providers) and Australian government officials left the centre on October 31 this year and the centre was supposed to be reoccupied by the PNG Defence Force from November 1.
What are the options for those left on Manus?
According to the Australian government, those who have been found by PNG authorities to be refugees have the following options:
resettle in PNG;
wait in PNG for possible resettlement in the US;
transfer to Nauru to wait for possible resettlement in the US; or
return to the country from which they had fled persecution.
Resettlement of refugees in PNG has been slow and problematic with few people opting to leave the processing centre to live elsewhere in PNG.
The UNHCR has raised concern about just how “voluntarily” refugees can return to the country from which they fled.
Reviews of their cases and interviews are underway. Only 25 have been resettled so far. However, it is up to the US as to how many they will take and it is unclear when the next refugees will be transferred to the US.
Currently, it is clear the majority want to wait to see if they will be offered resettlement in the US. Refugees remaining in the processing centre have been offered alternative accommodation at East Lorengau Refugee Transit Centre (for up to 400 people) and West Lorengau House (for up to 300 people). Whether these facilities can in fact house this many men is as yet unclear.
The UNHCR is urging against the forced movement of refugees and asylum seekers to these centres from the processing centre.
In March 2003, the Howard government involved Australia in an illegal military invasion of Iraq. The consequences of that war continue to be devastating for the people of Iraq and the wider Middle East. The prime minister was able to opt for invasion because in Australia the sovereign power to take the gravest decision, the commitment of the Australian Defence Force to international armed conflict, rests with the executive – in practice, often the PM alone – rather than with parliament.
Since 2014, further military deployments have taken place in Iraq. The bombing of Syria continues. Several months ago, the prime minister announced unqualified support in principle for the United States in possible military action against North Korea.
All these developments reinforce the dangers typically associated with secretive small-group decision-making. Closed decision-making breeds hubris; and hubris, the friend of folly and recklessness, often results in disasters. All are a curse for democracy. That is why the Sydney Democracy Network, in partnership with Australians for War Powers Reform, convened a public forum on the subject of the urgent need for war powers reform.
When governments kill in large numbers they always do so for a good reason. We must be on guard against that. – Howard Zinn
Australian politicians talk about ending terrorism but they make decisions that carelessly or inadvertently stir the pot and radicalise people. This then reinforces the dominant public narrative and makes military incursions superficially acceptable. Unfortunately, vigorous debate in Australia is encouraged only within the limits imposed by “unstated doctrinal orthodoxy”, particularly in relation to foreign policy.
Not only are the people who control what we know determining our future, the government secrecy surrounding Australia’s historical record deliberately obfuscates our understanding of what is going on right now. Symptomatic is the way the Australian Defence Force (ADF) has recently been found to be one of the least transparent military coalition members in Syria. The ADF won’t reveal “where they bomb, when they bomb or what they bomb”.
Syria’s recent history reads like a contemporary illustration of Chris Clark’s conclusion in Sleepwalkers: how Europe went to war in 1914. The period analysed in that book shows that great powers had more than one enemy, and that executive decision-making was chaotic.
War was a consequence of decisions made in many places, with their effect being cumulative and interactive. These decisions were made by a gallery of actors who otherwise shared a fundamentally similar political culture.
On September 9 2015, Australia’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Gillian Bird, wrote to the UN Security Council president claiming that Article 51 of the UN Charter recognises the inherent right of states to act in individual or collective self-defence when an armed attack occurs against a UN member state. States must be able to act in self-defence when the government of the state where the threat is located is unwilling or unable to prevent attacks originating from its territory. Bird alleged that the Syrian government had, by its failure to constrain attacks upon Iraqi territory originating from ISIS bases within Syria, demonstrated that it was unwilling or unable to prevent those attacks.
Unauthorised and uninvited
The Australian government was not questioned about how Syria was unwilling or unable to prevent those attacks. It was not asked how airstrikes would affect the Syrian population and infrastructure.
There was no link between ISIS, a non-state actor, and Syria. ISIS was not acting under instructions from, or the direction or control of, the Syrian government. Western governments made no attempt to work with the morally disgraceful Assad regime to actually enable it to prevent attacks emanating from its territory (and indeed Australia didn’t recognise the legitimacy of the regime).
Moreover, the Syrian government didn’t invite us to carry out airstrikes in Syria, and there was no UN Security Council resolution authorising the use of force. Neither the Australian government nor the opposition provided a clear explanation about why in August 2015 there was no clear legal basis for Australian involvement in Syria, but by September 2015 there was.
There was no rational discussion about our strategic ends. There was certainly no mention of the fact that in 2014 we already had embedded ADF personnel in Florida contributing to operations against ISIS in Syria.
There was, however, a letter, dated September 17 2015, from the Syrian government to the Security Council. The mainstream media did not report it, but the letter was referred to in documents I received following FOI requests. The letter disputed Australia’s unwilling and unable claims and pointed out that the Syrian Arab Army had, over four years, been fighting ISIS, the al-Nusrah Front and other groups being supported by Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Western states.
The letter called on others to co-ordinate with Syria. It said the international coalition led by the US had yet to achieve anything tangible in its war on terrorist organisations.
The Syrian government had a point, particularly since US President Barack Obama had already told VICE News (on camera) that:
ISIS is a direct outgrowth of al-Qaeda in Iraq that grew out of our invasion in 2003, which is an example of unintended consequences.
What was omitted from the political and public discourse in the lead-up to Australia’s decision to become involved in Syria was the fact that Syria had experienced a severe drought between 2007 and 2010. The drought spurred as many as 1.5 million people to migrate from the countryside into the cities, creating significant social and economic tensions.
In 2012 the UK’s MI6 co-operated with the CIA on a “rat line” of arms transfers from Libyan stockpiles to Syrian rebels after the fall of the Gaddafi regime. That same year, Russia proposed that Assad could step down as part of a peace deal. The US, Britain and France were so convinced that the Syrian dictator would fall that they ignored the proposal.
By this stage, the UN human rights commissioner had already confirmed 60,000 Syrian fatalities between March 2011 and November 2012. The current estimate is almost half a million deaths.
In September 2014 the US Congress determined that the US$500 million CIA program to arm Syrian rebels had failed. Arms had been ending up in the hands of the al-Nusra Front, and Jordanian intelligence officers were selling arms on the black market.
The following month, The New York Times reported that a CIA report had concluded that “many past attempts by the agency to arm foreign forces covertly had a minimal impact on the long-term outcome of a conflict”. The report came a month after Australia had delivered weapons to Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and a month before our successful delivery of 18,000kg of crated weapons from Albania to Erbil in Iraq.
On March 21 2015, international aid agencies and human rights groups released the Failing Syria report. This found that UN Security Council powers had failed to alleviate the suffering of civilians as the conflict intensified.
Two months later, the International Crisis Group released its own report warning that military aid had been given without an underlying strategy, which would prolong the battle with ISIS and inflame other local conflicts between intra-Kurdish rivals. The report noted that the US-led coalition had remained silent about Kurdish land grabs in disputed territories.
In May this year, Amnesty International urged the US and other countries to stop arms transfers that could fuel atrocities. This followed confirmation by a US Defence Department audit that the army had failed to monitor over US$1 billion worth of arms and other military equipment transfers to Kuwait and Iraq, which have ended up in the hands of ISIS.
A show for the domestic audience
In August 2015 rumours began to circulate that the then prime minister, Tony Abbott, had pushed for the US request to join airstrikes in Syria. Only five days before the bipartisan decision was made, Amnesty International reported that 220,000 people had been killed in Syria. Another 12.8 million needed humanitarian assistance and 50% of the population was displaced.
Still, at a reported cost of A$500 million a year for our air war against ISIS, and regardless of international law, we were first in with the US, beating our British counterparts who delayed plans for a parliamentary vote. A number of military strategists were of the view that Australia’s involvement was a show for the domestic audience.
The irony, of course, is that six days after the decision to conduct airstrikes in Syria, we had a new prime minister. Shortly after that a document titled “ADF Operations in the Middle East” was produced in response to my FOI request. It confirmed that “the prospects for a political or military solution are poor”.
The word “poor” seems highly inadequate. In order to supply arms to Syrian rebels, the Pentagon relies on an army of contractors from military giants to firms linked to organised crime. Saudi Arabia (a Western ally) and Qatar are providing clandestine financial and logistical support to ISIS, while Iran and Russia support Assad. Turkey is fighting the Kurds and the US-supported opposition groups, but is fighting with Russia against ISIS.
There are drone strikes and bombs being dropped by the US, Belgium, Jordan, Netherlands, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, United Kingdom, France, United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Israel, Denmark and Australia. There is disturbing evidence of the al-Nusra Front’s access to sarin gas. And to top it off, a Bulgarian journalist recently uncovered Azerbaijan Silk Way Airlines offering diplomatic flights to private companies and arms manufacturers from the US, Balkans and Israel and the militaries of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and US Special Operations Command to ship weapons around the world, including to Syria, without regulation.
Hidden agendas lead to humanitarian disaster
Our politicians continue to support the US, an ally that has historically forsaken the exploration of peaceful means and diplomatic solutions in favour of force and aggression. Under the pretext of responding “with decency and with force” to humanitarian concerns and the responsibility to protect civilians, Australia extended airstrikes into Syria.
Decency? Every war is a war on children when armed conflicts kill and maim more children than soldiers. Perversely, more soldiers die from suicide and peacetime incidents than war.
And then there’s the matter of secrecy. On January 6 2017, I issued an FOI request to the Defence Department for copies of documents confirming or specifying the dates, locations and outcomes (numbers of military and civilian casualties) of airstrikes by Australian forces in Syria. On January 20 2017, I received an email simply confirming that “the Department does not specifically collect authoritative (and therefore accurate) data on enemy and/or civilian casualties in either Iraq or Syria and certainly does not track such statistics”.
For all the political protestations about concern for civilian lives, we are not even trying to count our victims. To date, we have only claimed responsibility for the deaths of Syrian soldiers in airstrikes in September 2016.
This year, as if Australia wasn’t already an aircraft carrier for the US, the government decided to sell military equipment to Saudi Arabia. Overnight, Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne became a dedicated arms salesman, announcing that he wanted Australia to become a major arms exporter on a par with Britain, France and Germany, and to use exports to cement relationships with countries in volatile regions such as the Middle East.
Perpetual war has devastated the Middle East. Others rightly argue that a government that devotes the bulk of its budget to arms manufacturing implicitly makes a moral decision that militarism is more important than the creation of well-being for the population.
The difficulty is that Australians still aren’t told the truth about why we became involved in Syria. Those decisions seem to have been made in furtherance of unstated international coalition agendas rather than on open and objective assessments of their merit. This state of affairs is made profoundly worse by the fact that the decision to go to war was an executive decision, not a decision made democratically after full and open parliamentary debate based on the best objective information available.
We are fighting a difficult battle for transparency in these disturbingly Orwellian times, but the battle can and should be waged for as long as we have the will and the means to do so. Our best weapons are an accurate historical and geopolitical perspective and truth.
When it comes to war, our government needs to be more transparent and to open up decision-making on whether to become involved. Politicians and military personnel must be accountable for the human consequences of what they perpetrate in our name. It is our collective responsibility to do what we can to hold them to account.
Donald Trump has just attended his first APEC leaders’ summit following bilateral state visits to Japan, South Korea, China and Vietnam. After the NATO summit and G20 earlier in the year, in which he displayed his inexperience and lack of affinity for multilateralism, many feared the worst.
But the comfortable rapport he established with leaders like Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, as well as the less formal structures of APEC, meant there was no repeat of the northern hemisphere summer.
APEC was established in 1989 with the leaders’ summit added in 1994, with an ambition to drive economic co-operation and in particular trade liberalisation across the region. While it has been modestly successful in the unglamorous area of trade facilitation – involving largely regulatory streamlining to make the business of international trade smooth – as a co-operative framework it has not achieved any major outcomes.
So when looking at APEC, the real interest is not on the grouping’s economic policy process, but what occurs on the platform that the leaders’ summit provides, as its convening power remains impressive. What did we see in 2017?
Once again, APEC was a forum for discussing a non-APEC trade agreement. The TPP had regularly figured in previous meetings, and this time the 11 remaining members met to try to craft an agreement without the US. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau failed to attend one of the meetings, but it does appear that the 11 have salvaged some kind of a deal.
A string of meetings occurred on the sidelines. Of greatest interest was Trump’s conclave with Russian President Vladimir Putin, mostly focused on relationship-building, particularly important given the slate of new leaders in the club. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Moon, Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen were all making their debut.
Despite the evidently warm personal relationship that Trump has developed with Xi, the smiles and diplomatic tourism in Beijing are the pleasant facade of what has become a more overt competition for influence in the region. At the 2017 iteration of the meeting Gareth Evans famously described as “four adjectives in search of meaning”, this was plainly in sight.
At keynote speeches to the APEC CEO summit, Xi and Trump laid out their views on the region’s future. Trump’s speech was the second setpiece, following Rex Tillerson’s speech at CSIS in October, which outlined a belated US strategy to the region. The US aims to sustain a “free and open Indo-Pacific”, and Trump’s focus at APEC was on the economic dimension.
Continuing the themes raised in his UN General Assembly speech of September in which Trump declared he expected all countries to pursue their own interests first, he continued his walk away from core principles of its economic engagement of the region. In the past it had pursued large scale multilateral agreements, initially chasing a big free-trade agreement of the Asia Pacific, and more recently the TPP.
Trump said very plainly that there would be no more big agreements, and only bilateral deals based on strict and fairly narrow ideas of reciprocity. The other notable element was a direct statement that the US would no longer put up with predatory practices of other countries, such as IP theft, subsidies and not-enforced trade rules. While he did not name China as his main concern, he didn’t need to.
Trump’s effort to reconcile US rhetorical commitment to an open economic order in the region with his mercantilism stood in contrast to Xi’s approach. Xi painted a picture that seemed much more in keeping with the longer-run trends in Asia’s economic order.
Xi repeated the promise made at Davos that China was committed to economic openness. More specifically, he said China would seek to make economic globalisation more open, inclusive and balanced.
Interestingly, he said China would uphold regional multilateralism as the best means to advance the region’s common interests that were “interlocked”. He also presented the “Belt and Road Initiative” as an open mechanism that would help advance regional connectivity and even, somewhat surprisingly, described it in fairly economically liberal terms.
To be clear, Xi’s speech was a declaration of what China would do – whether it actually follows through is an open question. Nonetheless, Xi presented a China that would lead an open and inclusive economic order, in some ways as a defender of the status quo. Trump, in contrast, seemed to break with that tradition. Trump’s economic nationalism was on display, and he encouraged others to follow his lead.
Quite where this leaves the region is unclear. We still have to wait to see whether the two speeches of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” becomes an actual strategy. US policy remains hindered by a lack of resourcing in key branches of government.
Equally, we have to wait to see what China will actually do. But make no mistake, at APEC 2017, the region’s two biggest powers presented clearly different visions of the region’s economic future.
Australia’s national minimum wage should become a “living wage”, according to a new campaign from the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU). But what exactly is a living wage?
In theory, a living wage is no different to a minimum wage. Both set a binding “floor” on wages, below which no employee can (legally) be paid. But in practice there are several differences between minimum and living wages, in their value, purpose, and adjustment.
A living wage is set higher than a minimum wage and may be “pegged” to (fixed as a percentage of) some other measure of living standards, such as average weekly earnings. This ensures that the living wage holds its relative value over time.
Essentially, while the minimum wage sets a bare minimum, the living wage aspires to be a socially acceptable minimum. Typically, this is seen as a level that keeps workers out of poverty.
But the point at which workers fall into poverty varies widely, due to differences in family responsibilities, and complex interactions between low wages and welfare payments. These factors necessarily affect how the level of the living wage would be set and adjusted.
The idea to shift to a living wage follows a string of bad news about pay. Many vulnerable workers have been denied their minimum entitlements by employers. Wage growth is so slow that even the Reserve Bank Governor has encouraged workers to demand pay increases. And workers are getting less of the national income, as capital owners increase their share.
Living vs. minimum wages
Australia’s national minimum wage is set each year by an expert panel of the Fair Work Commission (FWC). The panel receives submissions from a wide range of organisations and conducts research to inform its decisions.
Increases to the minimum wage are based on objectives enshrined in law. These refer to different factors, including business competitiveness, employment growth, and the needs of the low paid. There is no specific mention of poverty in the current objectives. Nor is there a fixed relationship with any other measure of living standards.
In other countries, minimum wages and living wages co-exist. In the United States, long periods can pass without increases in the federal minimum wage, as there is no mechanism for its regular adjustment. This has led many local governments to set their own mandatory living wage ordinances, above the federal (and state-level) minimum wages.
The situation is different in the United Kingdom, where the Low Pay Commission recommends a national minimum wage increase each year. Even there, the movement for a voluntary “real living wage” has strong support from employers.
If the ACTU plan became law, Australia’s living wage would differ from the US and UK models. It would replace, rather than complement, our national minimum wage, substantially raising the wage floor. This would require the FWC’s expert panel to have different wage-setting objectives, with its primary goal being to eliminate working poverty.
Would a living wage help the poor?
Regrettably, poverty is the reality for many of Australia’s lowest-paid workers. Some struggle to make ends meet and go without basic necessities, such as meals and heating – particularly those in single-income families.
Neither our current minimum wage, nor the proposed living wage, is a pure “anti-poverty” tool. This is because the poorest people do not have paid jobs – often due to serious socioeconomic disadvantage. A living wage only helps those who rely on paid work (their own or someone else’s) for an income.
The intention of a living wage is therefore not to eradicate all poverty, but to end poverty among those who work – “the working poor”.
This laudable ambition is complicated by differences in personal and family circumstances. A living wage cannot vary from person to person, yet low-paid workers are not all alike: some live alone, some have children, and many are in dual-income families.
Who should a living wage be set for? The income needed to prevent poverty is inevitably much higher for workers with families than for those who live alone.
The Social Policy Research Centre (SPRC) produces “budget standards” that show the minimum income required by different types of families to reach a healthy living standard. Their evidence has been widely used by the ACTU and other advocacy groups in submissions to the Fair Work Commission.
According to their analysis, an employed single adult currently needs A$597 per week (before tax, and including housing costs) to live healthily. A couple with two young children needs almost twice as much: A$1,173.
The national minimum wage is currently A$695 for a full-time worker. So, according to the SPRC’s research, that worker already earns enough for a healthy life if they live alone, but not nearly enough if they have a family. This highlights the difficulty of setting a single living wage that would universally prevent working poverty.
Families with children also receive other government assistance through targeted welfare payments. This further complicates the task of setting a living wage.
What are the alternatives?
There are other ways to tackle working poverty. In the US, an “earned income tax credit” reduces the taxes of low-paid workers, so their wages stretch further. Such a scheme has been recommended for Australia.
Another very different approach to welfare is a universal basic income (UBI). This would provide a guaranteed minimum income, regardless of whether someone works, and without eligibility tests like those behind Centrelink’s recent “robo-debt” debacle.
Supporters of UBI also see it as a solution to job losses caused by rapid automation.
Living wages and UBI are radically different ways of tackling poverty. Work remains vital for a living wage, but is optional for a UBI. A living wage would raise the value of paid work, but might make life harder for some jobseekers whose labour becomes more expensive. A UBI would provide income without work, which might encourage more people to drop out of the labour force altogether.
In pushing to “make work pay”, the ACTU is hoping to capture both the public imagination and, for workers, a larger slice of the economic pie.
Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data released this week as part of the Personal Safety Study (PSS) reveals 16% of Australian women have experienced partner violence.
The 2016 PSS was conducted across Australia and surveyed around 21,000 people about their experience of violence. The PSS was last run in 2012, and before that in 2005, so it’s possible to make some comparisons across time.
The statistics show a mixed picture. Overall, the proportion of Australians who report that they experienced violence in the past year has declined from 8.3% in 2005 to 5.4% in 2016.
Women were much more likely to experience physical violence from a previous partner than a current one. Around 2.9% of women reported violence by a current partner, while around 14.6% of women experienced violence by a previous partner. There has been little change in the partner violence figures since 2005.
In the last few years, significant resources have been devoted to changing attitudes towards domestic violence – so why aren’t the numbers going down?
One answer may be that broader attitudes towards women and relationships need to change and this takes a long time. Campaigns like Let’s Change the Story and The Line focus on creating the deep and long-lasting cultural change that’s needed but it’s probably still too early to see results.
Another answer might be that some people are changing, and using violence less. But as we talk more about domestic violence, it loses the stigma historically attached to it. As a consequence, more people are prepared to name it and report it. This keeps the figures stable.
The ABS statistics show that some women* report violence by their intimate partners after separation rather than during the relationship. Of the women who reported experiencing domestic violence, 92.4% were living with their partner and 7.6% were separated.
This is no surprise. Leaving the relationship may threaten an abuser’s sense of control and violence may be one tactic used in an effort to reassert control or punish the victim for leaving.
In 1990, Martha Mahoney coined the term “separation assault” in recognition of the phenomenon. Separation is now a well-known risk factor for heightened violence. In governmentdeath reviews, actual or intended separation is a characteristic of a high proportion of intimate partner homicides.
Risk assessment tools that police and support services use in safety planning now routinely identify separation as a key risk factor for further violence and death.
Notably, while the ABS statistics have remained relatively stable, calls on services have increased significantly over recent years. Applications for domestic violence protection orders in Queensland have jumped from 23,794 in 2012-13 to 32,221 in 2015-16 – a 26% rise.
Similarly in Victoria, 74,551 family violence and personal safety matters were heard by the Victorian Magistrates Court in 2015–16. This was a 27% increase since 2011–12.
In Queensland, reports to police of breach of domestic violence protection orders have more than doubled between 2012 and 2017 and these have also increased significantly in Victoria.
According to annual reports, calls for support to Queensland’s domestic violence support line, DVConnect, have tripled between 2012 and 2016. Safesteps, Victoria’s domestic violence support line, has seen a similar increase.
Given the ABS reports that figures on domestic violence remain relatively stable, why is there such an increase in requests for support and services?
The ABS statistics are collected through a survey and include questions about seeking help.
The increased numbers of applications for protection orders, reports of breach of those orders and increased calls to support services might suggest that people are increasingly willing to seek help in response to the violence they are experiencing.
Perhaps some are choosing to leave their violent partners. Again, this increase in help-seeking may be explained in part by a reduced stigma associated with domestic violence and the increased willingness of people to name it.
Another explanation might be that services are improving their understanding of domestic violence and are getting better at screening for domestic violence and making appropriate referrals.
Whatever the reason for them, the relative stability of the overall statistics in the ABS study leave no room for complacency. The figures remain too high.
As we reduce the stigma of naming domestic violence we may see more women seek help, and when they do they will often be placing themselves at serious risk. We need to continue to develop and resource robust responses to individual perpetrators and appropriate support for victims.
The National Sexual Assault, Family & Domestic Violence Counselling Line – 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week for any Australian who has experienced, or is at risk of, family and domestic violence and/or sexual assault.
* This article originally said higher number numbers of women reported violence by their intimate partners after separation than during the relationship. This has now been corrected. The article also been amended to reflect that the ABS survey included questions about help-seeking.
The Australian public should be dismayed and disgusted that the major banks are still attempting to cover up the extent of their complicity in manipulating the Bank Bill Swap Rate (BBSW), a key interest rate benchmark.
For years, the banks covered up the involvement of their traders in manipulating not only interest rate but also foreign exchange benchmarks, by attempting to outspend the corporate regulator, ASIC, in the courts, using shareholders’ money.
Faced with publication of the evidence they caved in at the very last minute to settle with ASIC, paying even more shareholders’ funds, for fines and legal costs.
Has any director or senior manager taken personal responsibility, or even apologised, for either the rampant misconduct or the failure to monitor it – No!
in the course of trading on the BBSW market, a small number of traders attempted to engage in unconscionable conduct on ten dates between September 2010 and February 2012. ANZ also did not have in place adequate policies and systems to monitor trading and communications of its BBSW traders.
But we should not be fooled by the references to the “small number of traders”, or “ten dates”.
Last year, CBA and NAB agreed to enforceable undertakings with ASIC in relation to manipulating the foreign exchange benchmark, which was arguably much more egregious than the BBSW manipulation, as it involved sharing of information with other market participants, in particular sensitive information about clients’ trades.
Not one of the directors or senior managers of these banks took personal responsibility for the actions of their staff or their collective failure to monitor such obvious misconduct.
Traders involved in the breaches will have to be retrained before they are allowed back on their banks’ trading floors
Trading on nonpublic confidential information, which is what “manipulating the bank bill swap rate to their advantage and the disadvantage of others” was, is often punished by custodial sentences not some short court-ordered training course. This would just reiterate the rules that the traders should have been following anyway and which diligent management should have been enforcing.
The failure to monitor staff seems not to have slowed the progress of some senior managers. For example, ANZ CEO Shayne Elliot, was head of ANZ’s Institutional Bank (i.e. trading operations) during most of the period in which the unconscionable conduct took place.
Why did they pursue the court cases?
So what were the boards of directors of some of Australia’s largest companies doing while this failure to monitor unconscionable conduct was going on?
While neither superstar chairmen Ken Henry (NAB) nor David Gonski (ANZ) were in place during the original misconduct, they have been in place since 2014 and have had ample opportunity to inquire into the details of the scandal.
Having read the same evidence as Justice Jagot, directors chose to proceed with the case before caving in on the day it was due to be heard in court. Investors should be tearing their hair out at such colossal waste of money on high-priced (and in the end useless) lawyers.
Did they really believe this time was different, given that other banks had already pleaded guilty to manipulating BBSW? Even if they were not in place at the time, the non-executive directors of both banks are certainly responsible for continuing this expensive charade.
Such lack of oversight should surely trigger the first investigation when the new Banking Executive Accountability Regime (BEAR) legislation comes into force, as it covers directors and senior managers.
Pulling no punches
Federal Court Justice Jayne Jagot certainly pulled no punches in her statutory approval of the settlement between ASIC and the ANZ and NAB banks, saying that the Australian public should be “shocked, dismayed and disgusted” by the behaviour of the two banks.
The Australian public is right to be perplexed as to why no one considers themselves personally accountable for such a fiasco. And investors must be afraid that in pursuing the failed litigation so far, without apologising, that further harm is not done by possible class action litigation in the United States.
The Australian taxpayer would be justifiably annoyed to learn that the offences admitted by the banks took place between 2010 and 2012, when the very same banks were given the free handout of a government guarantee following the global financial crisis (GFC) – that really is biting the hand that feeds you.
So, should Australian investors, taxpayers and the public be “shocked, dismayed and disgusted” as the judge suggested? Yes.
But recent history suggests that the largest banks will just try to tough it out before returning to their previous modus operandi. Only a royal commission into banking regulation will break this vicious circle.